For many people, the holidays signify a time of all things merry. The celebratory season usually offers a brief reprieve from work responsibilities, and people often travel home from long distances to spend quality time with family members. For some people, however, visiting relatives sparks more holiday blues than holiday cheer.
When being around family members hurts your mental health, setting boundaries or having a discussion with them about spending the time elsewhere can be difficult.
Natalie Gutierrez, a New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma counseling, told HuffPost that visiting family over the holiday break can “bring up emotional triggers around painful memories, violation of boundaries, [and] unrealistic expectations that family may have put on them.” Oftentimes, this can lead to people feeling extremely anxious and, in a sense, can reopen old wounds, Gutierrez said.
If holiday visits with family devolve into tense situations that trigger stress, anxiety or depression, you’re not alone. According to a 2018 survey conducted by VitalSmarts, a research-based corporate training company, 33% of participants reported that family gatherings were a major holiday stressor. This is especially so in our current cultural climate, where disagreements over politics can increase anxiety and divide relationships.
Unlike the feel-good holiday movies that revolve around dysfunctional families healing their strained relationships over the course of Thanksgiving or a holiday week in December, many relatives are dealing with unresolved hurt in real life that doesn’t go away with one trip, said Nedra Glover Tawwab, a North Carolina-based therapist.
“It’s challenging to pretend that, ‘All is well,’ even for a few days,” she said. “People are expected to push their feelings aside to create these happy holiday experiences. A ‘magical’ holiday is not realistic when families have underlying issues.”
While a common sentiment seems to be to just “tough it out” and deal with unhealthy family dynamics, you’re not obligated to visit anyone if it threatens your mental health. Nevertheless, initiating a discussion with your family about why you’re not going home this holiday season can understandably feel overwhelming, nerve-wracking and even a little scary: You can’t anticipate their reactions, it may bring up emotions for you that you didn’t expect and it may lead to more serious talks in the future about your relationships.
However, skirting around having this conversation with family members will only exacerbate stress and anxiety, as research has shown avoidance coping is typically counterintuitive. According to Laura Rhodes-Levin, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Missing Peace Center in Agoura Hills, California, you can start the discussion by stating your needs in a compassionate and forthcoming way.
“Setting boundaries with family and breaking traditions can be one of the hardest things to do,” she said. “Be honest about your need to do something different this year. [Share] that it is not a good time to come and visit right now.”
Do this by utilizing what experts call “I statements,” which focus on stating your feelings, needs and thoughts in a non-accusatory, non-blameful way. For example, you might say something like “I feel that we always get into arguments about _____ even though I expressed how much those situations hurt me. I need to keep stress to a minimum in my life right now.”
These type of statements are often taught in family and couples therapy and can take some practice to perfect, but they can help you stick to your boundaries without sharing anything you don’t want to discuss.
“This conversation may look different for different people and circumstances, but you may even just communicate, ‘I am wanting to do something different this year, and I am choosing to not spend this holiday with family,’” Gutierrez said.
However, even if you approach the discussion in an assertive yet calm fashion, there’s no guarantee your family members won’t get defensive or combative. When this happens, Glover Tawwab said it’s more than OK to “disengage from arguing with people who aren’t ready to listen.”
Further, she explained that this tough talk isn’t about persuading people to “agree” with you; the boundaries you want during the holidays are the topic of the discussion, and you shouldn’t try to control or change the reaction of your relatives.
“If family members become confrontational, it’s important to take a breath and calm any fight or flight response happening in your body so that you may address them from your calmest, strongest, smartest self,” Gutierrez said, adding that yelling back or engaging in a fight may lead to guilt, shame or other emotions you need to process after it’s over. Your job isn’t to manage or take on their emotions after you express yourself.
“People are expected to push their feelings aside to create these happy holiday experiences. A ‘magical’ holiday is not realistic when families have underlying issues.”
– Nedra Glover Tawwab, North Carolina-based therapist
Sometimes, you might find yourself caught in a situation where visiting home this season is unavoidable. In that case, having an array of coping skills is key to staving off distress at family gatherings.
According to Gutierrez, skills taught in dialectical behavioral therapy — a type of therapy that focuses on mindfulness, emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships — can come in handy over the holidays. For example, “practicing a grounding technique for anxiety where you engage with your senses” can help when you’re struggling at home with relatives. Take stock of concrete items around you by mentally noticing items in front of you, naming a few colors you see and silently noticing what you smell.
Glover Tawwab said that building in set times for solitude, meditation or some form of relaxation or self-care activity will help keep you centered.
Ultimately, talking about how you feel is worth it. Discussing how spending the holidays with family is negatively affecting you may be anxiety-provoking, but shying away from talking about it may lead to more resentment or hurt down the road.
“Even in the discomfort of the conversation, be proud of yourself for taking care of your own mental health,” Rhodes-Levin said.
The holiday season can be whatever you want it to be, whether that means you exclusively reserve a few days for personal time, take a trip with friends or volunteer with nonprofits that are organizing holiday events. There’s nothing wrong with making your mental wellness your first priority during the season — even if that means skipping family gatherings.